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Alexis Ajinca should start at center for the Pelicans

This season is not lost. It is time for Alvin Gentry to experiment.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Alexis Ajinca is a large, lumbering big man. He is absolutely enormous, 7'2" with a ridiculous 7'8.75" wingspan that is the longest in the entire NBA. Ajinca is more than his measurements. Despite his size Ajinca is a knockdown shooter out to 20 feet. During his three seasons in New Orleans he is shooting 83.2% from the free throw line and 52.1% on field goal attempts beyond 16 feet.

The big Frenchman is under contract with the New Orleans Pelicans for the next four seasons for the paltry sum of $19.5 million. Ajinca is just 27 years old with a relatively clean medical history. Ajinca has received 20 DNP-CDs during his time in New Orleans but has been dressed and active for every single regular season contest. 161 consecutive games dating back to December 21, 2013.

Alexis Ajinca should be the starting center for the New Orleans Pelicans.

Alvin Gentry wants to play big to begin the first and third quarters but has no expectation of actually staying big throughout the remainder of the game. Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson are simply too good compared to the alternatives on the bench. Gentry should take a hard look at how Alexis Ajinca and Anthony Davis have performed together over the last two seasons, because the results are ridiculous.

Ajinca and Davis MIN ORtg DRtg Net Rating
2014-15 220 111.9 101.4 10.4
2015-16 69 108.2 89.5 18.7
Total 289 111.1 98.4 12.7

via NBA Stats

That's just mauling the competition. Resistance to Ajinca starting, and I have certainly led the cause, focuses on his inability to avoid fouling. Starting last Tuesday he lived up to that reputation racking up four personal fouls in just 13 minutes of action. If Gentry wanted a center to play 25 or 30 minutes a night that would be a serious problem. Gentry doesn't. Neither Ajinca or Omer Asik have played more than 25 minutes in a single game all season long.

On the season Ajinca is averaging 6.8 fouls per 36 minutes. Worse than his career best 5.7 last year and roughly in line with his career average of 6.6. There will be games that Ajinca has two quick fouls and the Pelicans have some difficult choices about whether to pull the plug early in the first quarter. In those situations it would be best to consider what the team is asking of their starting center. Alvin Gentry is not going to play any center long minutes. Foul trouble for a man that will only log 20 minutes in a typical night is not the same as a star expected to play 34 or more.

Besides fouling Ajinca has been a net positive on the defensive end. No player, not even Asik, sports a better defensive rating on the floor than Ajinca's 103.9. Unlike last season when Ajinca is on the floor opponents are not getting into the restricted area nearly as frequently. A decrease in attempts at the rim from 37.9% to 31.2% is substantial and one of the few signs that progress is being made defensively. When opponents do get to the rim they are unsuccessful more often than not, shooting just 41.9% when Ajinca is in the area to contest.

Restricted Area Paint Mid Range Above Break Corner 3 Defensive Rating
Ajinca ON 31.2% (1.11) 14.7% (0.81) 24.9% (0.73) 21.8% (1.21) 7.4% (1.15) 103.9
Ajinca OFF 34.1% (1.24) 14.0% (0.86) 24.9% (0.74) 22.0% (1.25) 5.1% (0.30) 110.0

Additionally Ajinca is making an impact on the defensive glass. Last season the Pelicans collected more available defensive rebounds with Ajinca on the bench (75.7%) than when he was on the court (73.1%). The inability to positively affect team rebound rates got Ajinca a spot on the 2014-15 J.J. Hickson All-Star team in October. That has turned completely around; New Orleans has corralled 77.5% of defensive rebounds when Ajinca is on the floor. Ajinca is doing the bulk of the work himself, posting an impressive 75% adjusted rebound rate, an improvement from 67.5% last year.

Offensively Ajinca opens up the court for everyone else to operate. He struggles at times to set solid screens and picks up a troubling number of moving screen fouls. Ajinca is also dangerous all the way to the three point arc with a silky smooth jumper that keeps getting better. This shot chart should be impossible, even accounting for the microscopic sample size. Alexis Ajinca is 7'2"!

This experiment could fail miserably. That's ok. This season, relative to expectations, is already well on its way to failure. That does not mean, however, that the season is lost. There are still evaluations to be made. High on any list is who pairs best with Anthony Davis for the long term. In a tiny sample size over two seasons no one has done better with the Brow than Alexis Ajinca.

If they fail then the Pelicans front office (or the front office who replaces them) will have the data and the film to rule out Ajinca as the starting center. If it works New Orleans could have a starting center for the next four seasons at a bargain basement price. It is fun to talk about draft picks and free agents to solve all the problems. Before the summer arrives the Pelicans would be best served to see if any answers are already present on the payroll.